My Ohio: The Candy Man

Life can be hard, but it is never so hard that you cannot appreciate a little sweetness.

It is the season of the butter cream. From Portsmouth to Perrysburg, sorcerers are conjuring haystacks that will fit in a lady’s hand, and in Zanesville, always a polite town, even the cherries will be cordial. The season begins in February with red velvet boxes tied with a grosgrain ribbon, and peaks on Easter, with rabbits that never flinch as you gnaw their chocolate ears. Against all accepted biology, they will leave jelly eggs.

It is the sweet season, the deluxe mix.

I did not set out to be the kind of man who will drive from Youngstown to Cleveland and somehow stop in Walnut Creek — and convince myself Coblentz Chocolate is on the way. But I know the moment I started down the nougat path. Like many broken men I blame a woman.

The sign read Shorty’s Deli, but in my Cleveland neighborhood it was “the candy store.” I wooed Mary Jo Brown there in front of a glass counter, with a pure heart and Spangler Circus Peanuts. Our love was doomed — Mary Jo was a pretzel kind of girl — and when she dumped me I salved my 6-year-old’s heartbreak with Seven-Up Bars. I have not pined for Mary Jo in years. I still dream of Seven-Up Bars.

Other women had tried to save me.

My aunts carried me to my grandmother’s dinner table like a sack of groceries, back when I was the size and heft of one. They wore pearls, I remember, and Tabu perfume and skirts that rustled when they walked. They worked and raised babies and gardens, but all day Sunday my aunts looked like movie stars.

My Grandmother Colino baked yards of lasagna and pulled sheet pizzas as big as church windows from her oven. But we were not candy people. My uncles would bring home a sampler and months later the box would be intact. They might as well have brought home a paperweight. I supposed that four little girls raised in the jaws of Great Depression could not (or would not) allow themselves such foolishness. After my grandfather died — he died young, in the mill — his daughters worked hard as men and made their own way. My aunts were pretty but indestructible, like paper dolls cut out of sheet metal. They were never big in the bon-bon department.

I dreamed of Dum Dum suckers and was…not ashamed, exactly. I was a foundling, I told myself, left on their doorstep by sugar pirates. But sometimes life has a surprise center.

I was a grown man, munching a carrot stick, when my Aunt Connie let slip that “Pa always had a sweet tooth.” I knew my grandfather sweated in a steel mill that was little more than hell with a lunch whistle. Away from the smoke he liked to sit on his steps, breathe in good air and allow himself a little sweetness. I learned he carried penny treats in his pockets, hard candy and caramels, because the mill heat would not harm hard candy and everyone knows you cannot kill a caramel.

If any man had reason to go through life with the taste of ashes in his mouth, my grandfather did. Instead, he took a moment for some joy, even if it was just the kind that melts on your tongue. It is nice to know I carry a little of him.

The world has so many corners. I have seen a fair number. Not all have candy stores. But for one short season every Main Street will seem to lead me to almond bark. In shop windows, druggists will move the face cream displays aside, and when they lift the candy box lid it will be like peeking into an heirloom locket.

Life is as sweet as it is difficult. That’s the deluxe mix.

John Hyduk is a freelance writer based in Fairview Park.